Big Picture Farm

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Big Picture Farm in Townshend, Vermont, is a little slice of goat heaven tucked in to the green mountains. The farm is occupied by a herd of 36 Alpine, Nubian, and Saanen goats, two herding dogs named Elvis and Josie, two barn cats, about 25 chickens, 3 hives of bees, and 3 pigs. Goat happiness is key here. The goats are fed organic grain that looks almost good enough to snack on, showered with love, affection, and care, and rotationally grazed on lush Vermont pastures.

The goats thrive on the care they are given, and are some of the healthiest animals I’ve ever been around. Big Picture Farm is proudly Animal Welfare Certified, which is the most comprehensive certification for animal health and wellbeing, and one of the best markers of animal happiness. Animal Welfare Approved farms undergo regular audits to ensure that the farm is following the standards set by the organization, including a healthy grazing system, one of the most important ways to keep ruminants (grass eating animals) healthy and happy.

The milk produced by the goats goes in to two products. The first of these are Big Picture’s farmstead goat milk caramels, the most delectable sweet treats that I’ve ever tasted! The award-winning caramels for which the farm is famous are lusciously soft nuggets of caramelized sweetness with a delectable undertone of creamy milk. Once you have a Big Picture goat caramel, you will never look at caramels the same way again.

Secondly, during the summer season, the milk is used to make two cheeses; Sonnet and Haiku. Sonnet is a firm goat tomme, almost a goat-milk version of a manchego, while Haiku is a semi-soft cheese also made from the raw milk of our lovely goats. Both of these cheeses are only made while the goats are on pasture, which means that they will change very slightly week to week as the milk changes throughout the season, depending on the pasture or weather. This is something I really appreciate in a true farmstead cheese; because no two days are the same, no two cheeses are the same, and each cheese is an edible record of that moment in time in that specific place.

I’m fortunate to be the new farm manager at Big Picture, which means that I get to make cheese, milk and care for the goats, help set up pastures, sell at farmers markets, and do a bit of everything else that goes in to running a goat dairy. This opportunity has already been a huge learning experience for me and is a big step towards having my own dairy one day.

Why did I choose Big Picture Farm as the place for the Wandering Cheesemonger to pause her wandering? Big Picture exemplifies the kind of producer I want to work with and to support as a consumer. The farm is solar powered, feeds organic grain, rotationally grazes the goats, limits the use of chemicals and antibiotics, is animal welfare certified, and produces impeccable products. You can feel good eating these delicious caramels knowing that you have chosen a sustainable, humane, and delectable treat. What more do I need to say to convince you to add Big Picture caramels and cheese to your shopping list?

To read more about Big Picture Farm, and to find the cheese and caramels (as well as a few other goodies), follow this link: http://www.bigpicturefarm.com/

Why Pastured Cheese is Best

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I recently had the opportunity to visit a good friend of mine who is spending the summer apprenticing at Meadowood Farms in Cazenovia, New York. Meadowood has pastured sheep and Belted Galloway cows and makes farmstead cheeses primarily in the Basque style. I was very impressed with a lot of what goes on at Meadowood, and could tell that a lot of thought went in to doing things in the best possible way. Perhaps the most important part of the cheesy puzzle at Meadowood, however, is the fact that their animals are on pasture, rather than living in confinement eating energy dense food like corn or grain.

I know that food purchasing with an eye to morality can become extremely complex and overwhelming very quickly. Many of the buzzwords that supposedly mean that a food product is good for the environment or good for animals have been co-opted to now mean little to nothing (‘free range’ chickens, for example, or ‘organic’). Unfortunately, there isn’t any easy trick to finding humane and environmentally sustainable products, and shopping in a grocery store can sometimes seem like a crapshoot. One truly important key to good quality, environmentally friendly, and humane cheese, however, is cheese made from the milk of animals who are on pasture.

When animals are on pasture, it is healthiest for the animals, who are eating what nature intended and therefore ingesting nature’s preventative medicine, but it is also healthiest for the land itself. Having animals grazing grass in the correct way reinvigorates the health of the soil, increases carbon sequestration (grass pulling carbon out of the atmosphere), and improves water retention in the soil, therefore decreasing erosion. Raising animals on pasture also means bypassing much of the resource-intensive feed that is given to non-pastured animals (corn, grain) and replacing it with grass.

Why is this important for cheese? Animals who are pastured produce milk that is universally understood in the cheese community to be more complex and flavorful, and therefore significantly more interesting for artisanal cheese production. Milk coming from animals that are on pasture changes day to day and season to season, giving the cheesemaker an extremely challenging and rewarding baseline for their cheese. Tasting a cheese made from pastured animals in the spring usually means fresh, light, flowery, green notes, whereas later in the season the cheese often begins to taste more dense and buttery.

Want to find some cheeses made from the milk of pasture grazed animals? We are lucky in Wisconsin to have quite a few, including our biggest star, Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Head in to talk to your cheesemonger and ask to taste some pastured cheeses, and they’ll have a lot more for you…and I promise you’ll be able to taste the difference.

Nettle Meadow: First Impressions

IMG_6199At Nettle Meadow, cheese chaos is the rule. There are three floors of people running around, making jokes about ‘cutting the cheese’, and trying to do everything that needs to be done. There are never enough hours in the day, a common symptom of farmstead cheesemaking, but somehow everything manages to get finished. I’ve been training at Nettle Meadow for 2 weeks now, and although I haven’t dropped any cheese in the shuffle yet, I have almost fallen head first in to the bulk tank of milk many times-the floor can get slippery when you’re working with so much whey!

A ‘make shift’ starts at 4 in the morning. You arrive alone, and spend the first four hours in the cheese room moving through the first steps of the process solo. It may sound painfully early to wake up at 3:30, but I think most people think of it as almost meditative; you may be tired, but at least you don’t have to talk to anyone (other than the ghosts that are rumored to live in Nettle Meadow’s cheese aging cellar). I haven’t started doing the 4:00 AM shifts yet, but I have to admit that I’m excited to get this one-on-one time with the cheese, ghosts or not!

I’m helping out in the cheese room and aging cellar, making cheese, aging it, and wrapping it up to send out to the world. Nettle Meadow makes quite a few different cheeses, but the most popular is Kunik, a semi-aged goat milk cheese with Jersey cow cream. Its creamy, rich, mild paste tastes decadent all by itself or with a drop of honey (my new go-to after work snack!). Kunik won first place in the Triple Crème category from the American Cheese Society in 2010, and is widely recognized as one of the most successful European style farmstead goat cheeses made in the United States today.

I’m also helping out with feeding kids and lambs, which is hands down the cutest part of my job. On my third day, my boss Sheila asked me if I would drive a couple of kids over to the other farm where we keep them (separating the kids from their moms helps to stop the spread of disease between the animals). I had visions of throwing 5 bleating baby goats in to the back of my mom’s Honda Civic, imagining with mild horror the mess the back seat would be, until Sheila pulled up in her car, explaining that they had a makeshift bed in the back for just such occasions.

How to Fondue

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Fondue is the perfect decadent treat for a cold winter’s night, traditionally eaten in mountainous regions where a good cheesy meal could help ward against the snow and ice. A lot of people come to me baffled by how exactly to make a fondue, so I wanted to share my personal favorite recipe while we’re in peak fondue season. Fondue is usually made from primarily alpine style cheeses, such as gruyere or comte. The buttery, floral flavor of these easy-to-melt cheeses make for a delectable pot of fondue.

The first thing you need for fondue is a base cheese; something not too flavorful (I like to use emmental) to create a base for your fondue without overpowering the other cheeses. Once you have your base cheese, you can start being a little more creative in cheese choice. For a traditional style fondue, I usually add Pleasant Ridge Reserve, from Uplands Dairy in Wisconsin, as well as Gran Cru Gruyere, from Roth Kase. Both of these are alpine style cheeses with fuller flavor than the emmental. They add light floral, fruity notes to the fondue, but at the same time don’t make the flavor too crazy. You can also use Comte or Beaufort as your two more flavorful cheeses, imported alpine style cheeses made in France and used in traditional French fondue-I just like to go local when possible!

Of course, fondue can be made with much crazier cheese combinations. It is usually important to make sure that any cheese you use melts well. Stay away from bloomy rind cheeses, which don’t melt very well, but beyond that, the sky’s the limit. I once made fondue with quadrello, a buffalo milk cheese from Italy that isn’t considered a good melting cheese. The high fat content in the buffalo milk made my fondue look a little greasy, but the taste was out of this world.

In general, I stick to this basic recipe:

4-6 oz cheese per person of:
2 parts Emmental
1 part Pleasant Ridge Reserve
1 part Gran Cru Gruyere (or other gruyere)

-before beginning, grate all of your cheese, then rub the fondue pot with whole garlic cloves, then chop the garlic up and place it in the pot with a splash of dry white wine
-gradually add the grated cheese, heating and stirring as you go along
-add a little more wine if the cheese starts to get too thick, but be careful to add only a tiny bit at a time!

I like to cut up some crusty bread, grab some cornichons (a traditional French fondue companion), and then steam a little broccoli to dip in my fondue.

If you’re still nervous about making the right fondue, ask your local cheesemonger to help you find the perfect cheeses!

Rush Creek Reserve

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Rush Creek Reserve is a star in the cheese world, a deliciously creamy (and highly contested) cheese whose name is known by anyone and everyone who keeps up on great food and food legislation in the United States. This cheese, made by Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, became a superstar because of its decadently creative flavor profile. Rush Creek Reserve is made only of the winter milk from cows at Uplands Dairy. The difference between summer and winter milk is an important distinction because the milk’s flavor changes significantly as the cows diet shifts from grass, in the summer, to hay, in the winter. The summer milk at Uplands is used in Pleasant Ridge Reserve, giving that cheese a more floral flavor, while Rush Creek Reserve has the more dense, rich flavor that often comes with winter milk cheeses.

Rush Creek Reserve is a young, raw milk cheese wrapped in spruce bark, giving the cheese a slightly woody flavor. You eat each ¾ pound wheel of Rush Creek by prying off the top of the wheel so you can dig into the gooey center with a knife (or spoon…). The paste has a strongly earthy, woody, and almost meaty flavor with a slightly sweet note. The luscious cheese is incredible smeared on a piece of crusty baguette, paired with dried figs and walnuts, or simply eaten alone.

In the last year, however, Rush Creek Reserve has garnered a different type of attention because of the stand made by its producer, Andy Hatch. Due to unclear FDA regulations on the legality of aging soft raw milk cheeses on wooden boards, Andy Hatch decided to stop making Rush Creek Reserve in 2014, a huge blow to the cheese world. His worry was that, with FDA regulations being so shifty and unsure, Rush Creek could end up being illegal to sell after it was produced, losing a lot of money for Uplands Cheese. Andy Hatch’s stand highlighted the importance of clear FDA regulations for small cheese producers, while also beginning a more public conversation on the importance of FDA support of small cheese production in the United States.

Although we went one year without Rush Creek Reserve, it all paid off when the FDA responded by making regulations much more clear. This year the delectable Rush Creek Reserve is once again being made and is available to the public–not to worry, you didn’t miss out! You can order directly from the producer, or from a number of cheese stores, but be sure to order in advance; most wheels are being sold before they even arrive at distributors, so don’t expect to be able to walk into your local cheese store and find one!

Cheese in the Colombian Countryside

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Traveling through the countryside in Colombia, you see countless stands selling popular Colombian culinary treats. Signs advertise arepas (small round thick tortillas made from corn), chorizo, fruit juices, ice cream, and also ‘queso campesino’ and ‘queso doble crema’. These translate to ‘country cheese’ and ‘double cream cheese’-not particularly descriptive. It gets even less descriptive when you realize that hundreds of farm stands across the country sell cheeses that go by these names.

Are they all the same? Yes, and no. Think of it as multiple different producers of cheddar in the U.S.; one might taste bland while the other is sharp, but they both sell under the name ‘cheddar’. With very few specialty cheese stores in Colombia, however, it’s not so easy to taste your way through all of the queso campesinos (especially when you pass about 25 queso stands in 30 kilometers, as I did yesterday).

In general though, queso campesino is a dry, pressed, feta-like cheese, very salty and generally very mild and unaged. I have come across a few that were more aged and had a stronger flavor, but generally the main taste is salt. Queso campesino often comes with when you order an arepa de chocolo, or sweet corn arepa, pictured above (think corn bread pancake). Queso campesino is also served along with hot beverages like coffee, chocolate, or aguapanela (‘sugarcane water’-yup, exactly what it sounds like). Queso doble crema, on the other hand, is a harder, block cheese, visually more like a cheddar (although notably absent of the orange dye that is added to most American cheddars). It isn’t quite so widespread and usually isn’t served along with meals or breakfasts, but you can find it at many roadside stands.

These ‘country cheeses’ essentialize the original purpose of cheese. In its most basic form, cheese is meant to be a way to preserve milk for later consumption or transport. The generalized naming of all of these traditionally made country cheeses reminds us of this characteristic of fromage. Instead of giving every cheese a specific name and selling it in a luxury market, these cheeses are mostly meant to appeal to the general public who have grown up eating queso campesino. This is similar to the way that many goat cheeses are sold in France; they are simply called ‘fromage de chevre’ and sold at low prices for people to eat on a daily basis. And although I love luxury cheeses, I also love this return to the basics of cheesemaking. Families are making a little bit of cheese from the milk their few animals produce, selling it fresh and in small batches, and not adding any frills; just selling their ‘country cheese’.

La Ratonera

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La Ratonera is an aesthetically impeccable, minuscule cheese stand peculiarly placed in the middle of a parking lot in Bogota, Colombia. We were lucky enough to visit while the owner was working the stand, and got to learn some of the cheese’s backstory. The owner told us a little about her work making cheeses with a cooperative of farmers in the Bogota area, in a sort of cultural exchange with cheesemakers from Vermont. She and her husband started the business to fill a void in Bogota, a city with a curious lack of artisanal cheese stores.

Unlike most cheese stores in the United States, though, which primarily buy cheeses made by cheesemakers and sometimes supplement with their own house made cheeses, La Ratonera’s business model revolves around a close relationship with cheesemakers in which the owners essentially commission the cheesemakers to create the cheeses that they want to sell. This is necessary because artisanal cheese production is only just in its infancy in Colombia. In other words, in order to sell a wide variety of cheeses, it was necessary for the owners of la Ratonera to create the cheeses themselves. Similar to the relationship that Jorge has with Antonio (see my post on Crimea), at La Ratonera they act as mentor and manager for the cheesemakers, bringing in cheesemakers from Vermont to help with training and then visiting the farms regularly to ensure that everything is running smoothly.

La Ratonera makes and sells a variety of primarily European style cheeses, including drunken goat, Gouda, Brie, and both goat and cow camembert, as well as some traditional Colombian cheeses. We tasted a lot of the cheeses, but I was most taken by two in particular. One was the goat camembert; dry but creamy, salty but with a mild goat-y flavor, the perfect balance was stuck with this cheese. I was happily surprised to find such a well made camembert in the middle of Bogota, proof of the success of La Ratonera’s methodology. The second was called Siete Cueros, a spiral of traditionally salty ‘queso blanco fresco’ (fresh white cheese). This cheese was the mother of all snacking cheeses, fun to pull out of its spiral, and delicious with crackers or on its own. Salty, fresh cheeses like these are commonly available all around Colombia, but this one was just a step above its counterparts.

If you are ever in Bogota, be sure to seek out La Ratonera, and taste your way through their cheese counter. The owners are true pioneers in the Colombian cheese world, and are opening the door to a future of artisanal cheese production across the country.

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Crimea: The Colombian Dream Farm

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We met Jorge and and his wife Olga Lucia at a grocery store on the side of the road, right across from the small house we had rented on the side of a mountain in central Colombia. They were there to pick up me and my partner Austen for a visit to their small goat cheese farm about an hour outside of Bogota. Jorge and Olga Lucia’s son, Gustavo, and granddaughter showed up shortly afterwards, and we piled in to two cars and drove 45 minutes to lunch.

On the way to the restaurant, Jorge explained to me that the difference between agriculture in Colombia and the U.S. can be essentialized in one way: in the U.S., farmers have access to all of the technology that they might want, but they usually work their own land. In Colombia, farmers have access to much more manpower (and womanpower, exemplified in Jorge’s female head cheesemaker), but can’t generally afford to buy the fancy machinery we use in the United States. Because of this difference, Jorge and Olga Lucia’s farm, Crimea, is run by a family of ‘campesinos’, while Jorge still works in Bogota as a consultant to support his family. Jorge’s role at the farm is that of administrator and overseer, visiting on weekends and whenever else necessary to make sure that everything is running smoothly. This sort of farm organization is common in Columbia, in which the landowner usually works another job while employees run the farm.

This doesn’t mean that Antonio, Jorge’s employee of 20 years, doesn’t have a huge role in the farm. Jorge continually stressed that although he and Olga Lucia were very involved in the farm work, it was Antonio who had built the farm into what it is today. Jorge and Olga Lucia are the conceptual background of the farm and take pride in the work they have done to create a smoothly running, self sufficient, beautiful and healthy farm (as they should; Jorge mentioned that in Crimea’s 31 years of existence, they had planted thousands of trees). However, Antonio is the one who milks and feeds the goats, keeps the farm in working order, and plants all of those trees. Antonio’s daughter is now the head cheesemaker, having learned from Jorge.

Crimea creates a few different cheeses, two of which we had the pleasure to taste. They make primarily fresh, pasteurized goats milk cheeses, some pressed in to rounds, some bathed in salty water to make feta, and some plain spreadable cheese. Jorge also plays around with other more aged cheeses–but these are just for the family. My favorite of his cheeses was the soft and spreadable fresh goats cheese, which had the rich and ‘goaty’ flavor that is often hard to find in pasteurized fresh cheeses.

The true highlight of our visit to Crimea, though, was seeing how well Jorge, Olga Lucia, and Antonio care for their goats and land. They have a careful rotation of eleven small pastures for their herd of 30 goats, which allows them to replenish the health of their land while also keeping their goats very happy and healthy. They are constantly working to find better ways to take care of their land and animals, and we talked extensively about their evolving philosophies on land usage and goat rearing. I was beyond impressed by the organization and thought that went in to every aspect of their farm and cheese business. Although Americans might be skeptical about the division of labor that comes with the Colombian farming system of landowner and live-in worker, Antonio and his family were clearly happy and very comfortable, and Crimea’s non-technological, labor-driven organization allowed for much more ecological, land-healthy and goat-healthy choices than many American farms have. Of course, this is also due to Jorge and Olga Lucias careful study on how best to organize their farm. No matter what, I have immense respect for the way Crimea is run and the impeccable cheeses that come from the system Jorge and Olga Luica have created.

Formatgeria la Seu: A Haven for Spanish Farmers Cheese

The Formatgeria la Seu is an easy to miss hole in the wall, a small, sparsely decorated, and deliciously cool cave in the middle of sweaty Barcelona. Immediately upon entering, I was drawn to the walk in cooler in the front of the store, stocked with cheeses displayed like single jewels, making you want to reach out and touch. The owner, Katherine McLaughlin, spoke English with a strong Scottish accent, a welcome surprise to me after having spent the day struggling with my limited Spanish. She started the store 15 years ago, after visiting Neal’s Yard in London (the mother of all cheese stores), and thinking, quote, ‘Shit, this is what I want to do’. She only stocks Spanish cheeses, due to a combination of the hassle of importing and a passion for having a close relationship with the producers she works with–she regularly visits and speaks to the producers she buys from, and isn’t afraid to give them honest advice on what their cheese needs. She had just reopened from her annual month long closing, when she usually goes to visit farmers around Spain to work with them on their cheese, and told me her stock was still limited–but all the same, there was plenty to taste.

I sat down in the back of the store to have a cheese tasting. She poured me a glass of her store’s personal red wine, a light and easy red that paired well with all of the cheeses we tasted without overpowering anything, handed me a basket of crusty bread, and the adventure began.

My plate included six delicious Spanish cheeses, all on the young side due to her recent reopening, but all clearly very well sourced and cared for. One of my favorites was El Petit Ot, a perfectly balanced goat cheese from Catalonia with a thick and creamy paste, named after the cheesemaker’s first son, Ot. We then tasted Arzua-ulloa, a cows milk cheese from Galicia with a soft paste and a hint of tartness to its flavor, another cheese that melted lusciously on the tongue. Valdeon was a mixed milk cow and goat cheese, from Castella Illeo. A dry and crumbly blue, it had an almost slightly powdery mouthfeel and a rather mild flavor devoid of any of the sharp acidity that you often find in blues. Cascarral was a mild semi-firm sheep cheese, in the Manchego family (but made with milk from sheep of a different race than Is used in manchego), from Burgos.

Up next was Mao, a smooth and intensely salty raw cow milk cheese with the consistency of an aged cheddar, but a mouth puckering salty punch that is incomparable–somehow the cheesemaker succeeded in this intense saltiness without going overboard, sending me back for more and more. Mao is rubbed with oil and paprika. Rotllets is a lactic acid goat milk cheese from Leon, with hardly any penicillin rind and a more mild flavor than most young goats milk cheeses, but a tiny hint of tartness. She paired these cheeses with a sweet quince paste called codonyat, a Catalonian favorite, as well as orange and raspberry preserves.

After the meal, she handed me a scoop of formatgelat, a smoky cheese ice cream made with a cheese named San Simon da Costa, gave me a recommendation for a wine store, and told me to come back to see her–which I will definitely do multiple times before leaving Barcelona.

The Miracle That is Cheese

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If I were to try and convince someone of the existence of a higher power, I would do so through the miracle that is cheese. Without prior knowledge, who could possibly imagine that the delectable morsels we snack on are created through the transformation of something as simple as milk? In my opinion, the miracle that is the creation of cheese is practically on par with Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Following this logic, the cheesemakers that act out this miraculous transformation on a daily basis are essentially prophets, spreading the word of good food.

I may be going a bit too far with this, but the gist is that a good cheese tastes truly miraculous. The miracle worker with whom I am apprenticing right now, Marisa, makes a whole range of miracles whose flavors I will attempt to describe.

Marisa’s fresh goat cheese rounds are creamy and delicate, with a light creamy flavor that dissolves quickly on your tongue, leaving you wanting more. At the same time, the large cheeses are dense and smoothly consistent in texture, perfect for eating on a crepe with honey or caramel, in a salad, or just completely plain.

Her ‘demi sec’ (‘half dry’) cheese is a aged somewhere between 2 and 3 weeks, the point at which the cheese develops a bloomy rind and a gooey, sometimes almost liquid interior. The rind has a sharp, almost acidic flavor that balances perfectly with the dense and creamy paste. It’s full flavor makes it delicious all by itself, but we also sometimes cook it in to small, flaky tarts; when warm, this cheese really packs a punch.

Her ‘sec’ are small ‘crotin de chèvre’, which technically translates to goat poop, but is also the name for small, well-aged dry goat cheeses. This hard cheese is extremely dry and covered on the outside with a fine, brown powder which is in fact millions of tiny spiders that work away at the cheese, lending it its unique flavor. This cheese has such a strong, sharp bite that we tell customers that it eats holes in your tongue–it isn’t for the faint of heart.

Finally, her  buffalo mozzarella are brilliant balls of pure heaven, spheres of rich and smoothly textured cheese from which buffalo milk leaks as you slice. The fresh flavor of the buffalo milk intertwines with the more complex curd, which has the classical gamey taste that often comes with buffalo milk cheeses. If all of this isn’t enough to make you a believer in the miracle that is cheese, I don’t know what is.